The wooden alleys at Diamond Bowl glisten, the pins are new and the benches are well worn.
The neon lights outside are classic - a ball and toppling pins, flashing diamonds and the word BOWLING with three letters no longer lit.
The barmaids can still bring hot fries and cold beer to the tables behind each alley. Friends meet for weekly league competition and scratch players still compete for a few bucks after 9 p.m.
Diamond is the last bowling house in Spokane with manual scoring sheets, which are projected onto overhead screens.
The place just feels right.
But in six weeks the North Side bowling alley will close, another victim of rising land values. Its 30-year lease ends May 31 and the last day for bowling is set for May 5.
The 24-lane alley used to sit alone on Division north of Francis Avenue. In recent years, its sign has been overwhelmed by Eagle, Wendy’s, Kmart and nearby mini-malls.
The property was purchased by developer Harlan Douglass three years ago and since then owner Gary Mage has known Diamond’s days were numbered.
Douglass hasn’t revealed his plans for the land, but the location fronts Division Street and is prime for retail development. Douglass paid $800,000 for the land, according to county records. That would seem to prohibit any bowling operation, which could not return enough to pay the higher rent, said Mage, who along with his wife also owns Valley Bowl, 8005 E. Sprague.
“Unfortunately for bowling, this is what’s happening all over the country. Bowling centers close - they don’t open,” said Mage, a pro bowler who still tours. “I never allowed myself to be attached knowing what was going to happen.”
Thirty-four leagues play out of Diamond, attracting some 150 bowlers a night. For many of them, attachment came a long time ago.
Diane Kaufman, 48, has bowled at Diamond in a league twice a week since 1978.
“I can’t imagine not coming up here. You lose track of people when something closes. You’ll never never get those people back again,” she said.
Already the leagues are having trouble finding homes. There’s space in Airway Heights or Deer Park, but the prime 6:30 p.m. times at Spokane’s other alleys are already spoken for, said Phyllis Edelin, league coordinator for Diamond.
“I’ve worked years to keep these leagues together and now, I’m just so sad about it,” she said.
Ron Buckner plays in the Thursday night Telco League at Diamond. “It’s sickening they’re closing it. I don’t know where I’m going,” he said.
Les Norton, 52, said Diamond was the first house to have a money league where the winning team got a $5,000 pot. He remembers stashing whiskey in his bowling bag before they served alcohol.
Diamond’s bowlers still keep score with real math. Installing an automatic scoring system, like those found elsewhere in Spokane, would have run $200,000, said Mage. “No one is going to know how to keep score anymore,” said Norton.
Norton remembers bowling with his family every Thanksgiving and being part of an annual New Year’s Eve tournament. The real trick in that tournament was to get finished before the champagne was served, he said.
Norton and others at Diamond used to compete in a Friday night competition that lasted until 4 the next morning. One game had the bowlers taking one frame at each alley and moving down the house. But each couldn’t proceed to the next lane until they got a strike.
Diamond is also home to more laid-back bowlers like the employees of Guardian Life Insurance.
“The name of our team is ‘Just For Fun.’ We do not take it seriously” said Erika Van Leuven, 38, who plays on a team with her co-workers once a week.
Though she bowled as child, Van Leuven didn’t get back into the sport until she she joined the office league last year. Now she has a bright blue ball and a home at Diamond.
“My husband was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you got a ball with your name on it.”’
Buckner said on any given day at Diamond, top competitive bowlers and seniors are rolling balls alongside those who may be trying out the game for the first time.
“Old people, young people, they’re all in a melting pot,” he said. “They’re all bowling and having fun.”
But Mage said bowling is also a victim of the transience in America and the diminishment of community.
More people than ever bowl casually but fewer are willing to commit to a league, which may last 32 weeks.
“I also think there’s a limit to the recreational dollars people have to spend,” he said.
Still, he’s in the business for life and his family is planning a $300,000 rehab of Valley Bowl, where they own the land. The money will go for a new facade, ball returns, lanes and an improved lounge.
With today’s economy, it is not likely any new bowling alleys will ever be built, he added.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)
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